For teachers and educators who are passionate about education and believe technology is a powerful enabler, EdTech has intriguing potential.  

Last month, I attended an EdSurge Summit at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California to get a better sense of how teachers and technology companies are joining forces to enable educational opportunity for students. The event, which meets regularly, brings together teacher participants to “Play, Listen, Explore, and Share” tech tools that have been curated by local educators.

After nearly 25 years in this work, we’re the first ones to say that we’re still learning every day.  That’s why we were glad that NPR gave us the opportunity to share some of what we’re learning and some of the ways we’ve evolved.

Opening up the doors is important. Not only does it allow us to give an inside look at how we’re trying to fulfill our potential as an organization, but it lets us shine a light on the efforts of our Teach For America community. The programs covered in the article are a result of the hard work of hundreds of Teach For America staff, corps members, and alumni—all committed to helping us do our part in the fight for educational equity.

Pass the Chalk

The shopping frenzy of Black Friday and Cyber Monday has settled a bit, and now we’re turning our lens to those in need on Giving Tuesday. First launched in 2012, Giving Tuesday has expanded into a much-anticipated annual event for those looking to give back and celebrate generosity.

At Teach For America (TFA), we’re keenly aware of a pressing need that keeps us working every day: Only 1 in 10 students growing up in poverty will graduate from college. You can help us change this. For just $5 a day, you can sponsor a day of learning for five students who lack educational opportunity because of circumstances beyond their control.

When I began to explore teaching as a career, one of the first factors I considered was the fact that I am gay.

If there’s anything that all teachers know, it’s that students sense when teachers aren’t being themselves. Kids can smell it: They can smell when you’re being forced to do something administrative; they can smell when you don’t want to be there; and they can smell when you’re not being real. When I am being myself, I smile. I laugh. I laugh out loud. I am animated. I gesture wildly with my arms. People can read my facial expressions from a mile away. My voice registers more tenor than bass. I am happy. I am passionate.

But taken together, all of those things that made me me were now things that made me walk on eggshells at school. Because some may see those attributes as “too gay.” I cautioned myself: If I smiled and laughed too much, or if my pitch was too high, my performance of my own masculinity might give students or parents reason to question my sexual orientation. Because others read gesture into gender expression and sexual orientation, I feared my passion and animation in my classroom. They would clue others to a side of me that I needed hidden.

Being a new father has both its challenges and triumphs. You get to see your night owl, attention-seeking infant turn into a daytime, attention-seeking baby boy who is fascinated with trying to fit as many Cheerios in his mouth as he possibly can. 

The challenge lies in the fact that in a few year short years, I will have to make some of the most important decisions in his life (much more important than Cheerios). Where will my son attend school? Whom do I trust with the social, emotional, and educational well being of my child? 

What makes this challenge even greater is the fact that I am, in part, responsible for creating that same sense of trust for the parents of 27,000 students in the largest district in the state of Missouri. Who would I be if I could not send my own child to a school in a district in which I am charged with making great? 

When I sat waiting on Monday evening for a decision in the possible indictment of Officer Wilson, I immediately recalled the moment I found out I was carrying a little black boy in my womb. The Trayvon Martin shooting was fresh in my mind, and I thought about how my skin color would be passed down, and my unborn son would be judged, undervalued, and treated poorly as a result.

Because of his race coupled with his gender, my son Jackson entered this world susceptible to poverty, homelessness, illiteracy, poor health, mass incarceration, gun violence, police brutality, and racial profiling. His ability to stave off many of these ills will be our responsibility, as his parents, and that is a heavy toll. We are ready for the challenge.

Like many of our Teach For America colleagues, we were watching television and following social media as St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch announced the grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown.

The entire situation in Ferguson that led up to Michael Brown’s untimely death and the face-offs between protesters and police in recent months have been tragic, and watching the reactions to the announcement last night brought that into stark relief. It also shined a powerful spotlight on the ways in which we are deeply divided as a nation.

At Teach For America, we work alongside our many partners to grow and strengthen the movement to end educational inequity, and we believe deeply in the power of people coming together from all walks of life to contribute to building the society that we hope for. We know the power that people who share the racial and economic background of our students can bring to this effort, as role models for students and as leaders in the effort leveraging the perspectives and credibility that grow out of their life experiences. We also know that people who have benefited from racial and economic privilege are critical to the effort. Because we need everyone, we have to be a community where people can work effectively with each other despite differences in background and perspective.

Growing up, I visited the reservation almost every weekend, stayed during summer break, and ate tonoo’ (seaweed) and taa'oo' (acorn mush). My dad and I often had talks about what it was like for him in the world and the history of my family and our people. Our conversations always seemed to lead to discussions about being Pomo—something that has molded my self-identity. To some, I don’t look like a stereotypical Native. As a child, and even today, I often hear, “Oh wow, you don’t look American Indian” or “But you’re not a real Native.”

For children who grow up in rural poverty, success is often synonymous with “getting out.” In Appalachia, we do not ascribe to this narrow vision of achievement. We want our students to receive a 21st century education that prepares them to drive innovation within their home communities. We are committed to a homegrown approach, working alongside teachers, parents, and local leaders to invest in Appalachia’s greatest natural resource: its young minds.  

Fueling a pipeline of homegrown leaders requires ongoing collaboration with a diverse set of education advocates, like Holy Cross professor Dr. Jack Schneider. Because of our focus on engaging thought-partners on our homegrown approach, I’ve spent time reflecting on Dr. Schneider’s recent Education Week piece titled “Reinventing Teach For America.” Even though his commentary included some inaccuracies (which have been addressed on our On The Record page), Dr. Schneider’s thoughtful suggestion that Teach For America (TFA) focus on recruiting “its teachers from the alumni rolls of the elementary and high schools where it places teachers” is one that resonates with our work.

“I’m not Choctaw; I’m Japanese,” my four-year-old son Rhys cried. I had just given him his tribal membership card, something that I thought he’d be proud of.

The strange thing is my son isn’t actually Japanese. Sure, he goes to Japanese schools and is fluent in the language, but neither my wife nor I have any Japanese ancestors. In his mind, he speaks Japanese; therefore, he is Japanese. Inheritance and genetics do not matter to him. When he found out that his hair and eye color were different from everyone else in his class, he didn’t see that as a problem. Instead, he confidently told us, and everyone, that he was a blonde-haired, blued-eyed Japanese boy. He knew he wasn’t Choctaw because he didn’t speak the language. It was okay for Dad to be Choctaw because Dad could speak a little Choctaw, but that didn’t mean he was.

As I think about my son’s development of self-identity and celebrate the heritage, culture, and contributions of American Indians during Native Heritage Month, I am reminded of the importance of identity in education. My ancestors came from many places, but my grandmother’s Choctaw culture and history were always the most important to me. Perhaps this has something to do with Choctaw culture itself, where the maternal family is the one where inheritance is passed on, or maybe it’s due to the historical continuity my family has had with our tribe. Whatever the reason, being Choctaw was always very important to me.

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We believe education is the most pressing issue facing our nation. On Pass the Chalk, we'll share our takes on the issues of the day, join the online conversation about education, and tell stories from classrooms, schools, and communities around the nation.

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